The host of FOX Business Network’s “After the Bell” and “Power and Money” talks with Managing Editor Leslie Stone about the unforgettable moments in his career, the most impressive person he has met and the question he almost wasn’t allowed to ask former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
David Asman is a consummate journalist whose storied career has spanned three decades and includes working as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial features editor, where he edited the Manager’s Journal and the Americas columns, in addition to writing editorials and over 100 articles from Latin America and elsewhere. He joined the FOX News Channel in 1997. Known for his straightforward manner, he has interviewed many politicians, newsmakers, and business leaders. He recalls the time he interviewed President George W. Bush on Air Force One, on a flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Kentucky: “About 30 minutes into the flight, Dana Perino [former White House press secretary] came back and said, ‘The President would like to see you’ and I was escorted into his private cabin. There’s always a phalanx of guards, but it was just the two of us in his private cabin on Air Force One. We were just jawboning about things in a very casual fashion. [Laughs] The irony is that it was an off-the-record meeting. At one point a guy snapped a photo but there were no video cameras. It was in the fall of 2007, about a year before the you-know-what hit the fan and the financial crisis blew up. I could see Bush was conflicted about wanting to support the free market and having to do things his free market friends wouldn’t like, and it was clear to me there would be things he was going to do that I would disagree with. When the conversation was over, I was going to go back to my seat and he said, ‘Stay here, David, and we’ll land together.’ I was fumbling for the seatbelt but couldn’t find one. [Laughs]. He told me not to worry, that it was a special privilege not to have to wear a seatbelt on Air Force One.”
Opportunist: How did you get started in journalism?
David: I grew up in TV news, which was one of the reasons I stayed away from it for so long. [Laughs] My father was in broadcast journalism, on the producers’ side, for most of his life. He worked with NBC news for 40 years and CBS news with Walter Cronkite before that. Watching him come home after working seven days a week, not even wanting to talk about it, I decided to focus on print. That’s where I spent the first 15-20 years of my career, first as a freelance journalist and eventually working at the Wall Street Journal.
Opportunist: Tell us about your time at the Wall Street Journal.
David: Robert Bartley, the late editor of the Journal, hired me. It was 1983, in the early years of the Reagan Administration, which I believe everyone would agree fundamentally changed America. The editorial page, which is where I was, had a large part in providing the blueprint for many of the economic policies put in place by Reagan. There was a deep malaise, not only economically, but also spiritually and ideologically. Reagan turned that around in many ways—just by his spirit. You realized what you were writing had a direct effect in influencing public policy—whether on economics or foreign policy—and I knew the folks in the White House were reading it. That is the kind of influence you hope to have as a writer. I think the Wall Street Journal is the most important paper in the world.
Opportunist: How did you get the assignment to cover Latin America for the Journal? Are you fluent in Spanish?
David: The Journal was having discussions about whether to hire someone who was world renowned as an expert in Latin America or a good writer and editor who would ask the dumb questions that most of us would ask. [Laughs] They felt the experts often pass over the bold questions, so they decided on me, the non-expert. I was very fortunate to start out pretty high up as an editor, so I didn’t have to spend time doing grunt work. I wasn’t bilingual before I went. I studied French in school and had no Spanish-speaking skills other than basic street corner Spanish that you pick up here and there.
Opportunist: What was that like?
David: It was baptism by fire! [Laughs] I was taking on the entire continent of Latin America. The purpose of the column was to give Latin Americans, who were living under the influence of a dictatorship or autocratic regime, a real voice. We broke through a lot of the barriers. Many of the people I interviewed were English-speaking people who traveled to or were educated here in the United States. I met my wife [from Nicaragua] while covering Latin America and my children would not exist if it weren’t for that job. [Laughs]
Opportunist: How did you make the transition to TV?
David: During my last two years at the Journal, John Malone—one of the best dealmakers in the world—invited me to host a show called TCI that he was producing through his cable network Tele-Communications, Inc.]. I believe it was the largest cable network after Time Warner. Malone saw an audience that wasn’t being reached by CNN.
David: They were happy to let me do it. We had a half-hour program at 7:30 every evening. I think it started in 1995 and went for two years until Malone found out that Rupert Murdoch hired Roger Ailes. [Laughs] During the drive home one evening, Malone told me: “When you put the best dealmaker in the world with the best manager in the world, it’s going to be unbeatable.” This was before FOX even began, but he could see—because he knew both men—that their capacity to create something new was limitless. He knew he was going to shut down. My show was phased out.
Opportunist: How did you end up at FOX?
David: It was a circuitous route. I was invited to a lunch for Fidel Castro at [publishing magnate] Mort Zuckerman’s office in 1995 or 1996. It was bizarre to see all these seasoned journalists treat this murderous dictator like sweet old uncle Fidel, and I actually wrote about it in the Wall Street Journal. Anyway, I was seated next to Roger Ailes and the late William Safire [columnist for The New York Times] and I mentioned my TV experience and Roger said, “Gee, you sound like the person we’re looking for at FOX.” He inquired as to whether I wanted to come over to FOX and after some negotiations he sweetened the deal. I came to FOX in 1997 and have been with the organization ever since. It is one of the best work environments. I have been fortunate, when employed for salary, to work with such great people.
Opportunist: You co-host “After the Bell” with Liz Claman in the afternoon and you host “Power and Money” at 9 p.m. Please tell us about those shows.
David: “After the Bell” is driven primarily by the market news of the day. Sometimes it’s like hitting a moving target because we have to figure out where the news is standing when it’s still moving. The whole show can be ripped up five minutes before we go on. Our nighttime show, “Power and Money,” is wholly produced as a new one-hour program every day. Sometimes news breaks at the 9 o’clock hour, but you’re rarely at the mercy of events as they break.
Opportunist: What is the focus of “Power and Money?”
David: Money is obviously the currency that we are all forced to live by and work for. Our use of the word power, however, is often misleading in the way it refers to political power and the power to manipulate people and money. Often, it is the people who aren’t well known who are the most powerful. Power can be the ability to influence people by behavior and also to create things that haven’t existed before. Take Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, and Steve Jobs for example. They saw the potential of literally changing the way the world works and they created something that didn’t exist before. The old adage that says invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration is absolutely true. Inspiration is key. It’s almost religious when you think about it. When people create something new they are actually becoming more godlike in their behavior.
Opportunist: Have any of your broadcasts impacted you personally?
David: Covering 9/11 is probably the most memorable broadcast for anyone who was on air that day. It was our generation’s Pearl Harbor moment. I was in my office preparing for FOX News’ 12 o’clock hour when I heard the first plane outside my window. Everybody thought it was a small plane at first. Just as I was walking into the control room to start broadcasting, the second plane hit. John Scott and I were broadcasting simultaneously to our affiliates. He was doing one feed and he pulled me into his broadcast and I’d pull him into mine and we sort of played tag all morning. Right after the second plane hit Scott said: “This looks like the M.O. of Osama bin Laden.” He was spot on that whole morning. The toughest thing about that day was keeping our emotions in check. The last thing America needed at that moment was a frenetic, overwrought broadcaster. My wife worked at the United Nations at the time and we were all absolutely on edge, but we felt our primary duty was to make sure the nation didn’t panic and so we kept our emotions in check.
Opportunist: Who is the most impressive person you’ve met?
David: That’s a very tough question. There have been so many. I could say my bosses because they have been important to my development in many ways. I’d have to say Maggie Thatcher. I sat down with her at editorial meetings at the Wall Street Journal, and she was obviously a politician through and through. She and Reagan were similar in their desire to transform their countries back into what their founders and their countrymen thought they should be. She was an extraordinarily impressive leader.
Opportunist: Do you have a favorite interview?
David: Now that you mention it—and I hadn’t thought of this for years—my interview with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin [the left wing, Irish republican political party]. Northern Ireland’s problems have eased, thankfully, but in my early days at FOX the Sinn Féin was turning a blind eye to the violence the IRA [Irish Republican Army] was committing. As the IRA’s political arm, Sinn Féin was negotiating with politicians and trying to portray itself as a genuine political movement and yet innocents were often caught in the crossfire when IRA terrorists would attack.
When I asked Mr. Adams if Sinn Féin was a democratic organization, he said, “Yes, absolutely.” When I asked if he condemned IRA bombings, he said, “Yes, absolutely.” When I asked if Sinn Féin was the political arm of the IRA, he said, “Yes, but we don’t have any control over the military operations of the IRA.” So I asked him how any democratic political organization could not have control of its military operations, and it stopped him cold. It was one of those great “60 Minutes” moments. I realized he didn’t have an answer and that was actually a very satisfying moment. It wasn’t as much the “gotcha” as the satisfaction of having somebody who disagreed with me understand and see there was a flaw in his own logic. He could no longer claim to be democratic and still allow the killings of the IRA. It was nice to be able to expose that on TV.
Opportunist: Has anyone ever refused to answer your questions?
David: No. Even the people I disagree with give me good answers. Very rarely do I encounter cold fish who try to obfuscate rather than negotiate.
At that luncheon for Fidel Castro, I asked Fidel a question that Mort Zuckerman thought was inappropriate and he stopped me and wouldn’t let Fidel answer. Fidel waved him down and was trying to be the peacemaker.
Opportunist: What did you ask?
David: “Mr. Castro, do you still call yourself a Marxist?” He said, “Yes, I do” and I replied, “Well, in Marxist theory as you work toward a more communist state, the state itself is supposed to shrink. Yours has grown ever larger and more intrusive into the lives of Cubans. Isn’t that a contradiction?” Mort Zuckerman thought it was a hostile question.
Opportunist: What did Castro say?
David: Fidel danced around the question. Roger [Ailes] asked the most interesting question. He asked Fidel if he believed in heaven and hell and, if so, where he thought he was going when he died. Fidel said, “I’m a Marxist Leninist and I don’t believe in
God but if I had to choose I’d prefer an Islamist heaven because they have sex there. [Laughs]
Opportunist: Is there anybody you’d like to interview but haven’t yet?
David: Sure, everybody from President Obama to the Central Bank president.
Opportunist: What are some of the questions you would ask?
David: “What is money?” is a good one. Ron Paul asked Ben Bernanke a similar question and Ben didn’t know how to respond. [Laughs] When you ask a very simple, general question, such as “What is money and can you define it?” it is very indicative of how people think about the fundamental issues and how the economy works. Highly educated people tend to talk in terms of the money supply, such as M1, M2 and M3, rather than in simplistic terms like money is a store of value. Sometimes you get so caught up in the minutiae of details that you fail to recognize the overall problem. That’s a lot of what’s been happening with Democrats and Republicans the last few years.
Opportunist: You have hosted several award-winning investigative specials. Of which are you most proud?
David: I’ve worked on many documentaries. Harkening back to my days at the Wall Street Journal, we influenced policies like the U.N. oil for food program. That was a corrupt practice that was supposed to get food to the innocent Iraqi people who didn’t deserve to be punished along with Saddam Hussein. Billions of dollars were funneled through corrupt officials throughout the world—some who are now fugitives of justice. Saddam collected billions for oil and the Iraqi people never got food or if they did it was just a pittance. Meanwhile, the U.N. and related agencies became very rich. We did several of those specials, which I think did influence policy tremendously. Another special highlighted a Hezbollah ring making billions of dollars by smuggling cigarettes from North Carolina to Detroit. They would sell the cigarettes at a profit and send the money back to Hezbollah [a Shi’a Muslim militant group and political party based in Lebanon]. The cell broke up around the time of 9/11, though, and it was obscured by the terrorist attacks.
Opportunist: What are your thoughts on the state of the economy and the future of America in general?
David: I am more optimistic about the economy than a lot of people. For example, we had Pat Buchanan on recently. He has a book out called Suicide of a Superpower and he’s quite pessimistic about the future of America. I believe his former boss Ronald Reagan would have been optimistic too. I think America is awakening to the notions of creativity and power that I just mentioned, and realizing that the government cannot and never will be an instrument of investment in our economy. You have to be free and untethered to come up with a creative idea, which is not possible in the political realm. America has begun to turn the tide on more intrusive government, though, and as that reverberates through 2012—and I have no idea who’s going to win—I suspect America will move toward less government. I believe it’s going to be a tough slog for the next few months, as we digest the news of what’s happening in Europe but I think we will see a rebirth similar to the mid-1980s when the Reagan tax cuts kicked in. New jobs—not just jobs saved—are what’s needed.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.